With the seventh iteration of the Assassin's Creed franchise releasing this fall, we sat down with Tim Browne, one of the lead game designers at Ubisoft to discuss some of the improvements the team is making to the multiplayer. While the multiplayer is newer than the franchise, relatively speaking, we inquired as to how the team keeps coming up with new modes and new ideas.
"We’ve got loads of ideas that we want to do and it’s very hard to fit them in in a yearly cycle," he explains. "Game Lab is a really good example of something that we knew we wanted to do for some time. It also fed into one of the things that the players are often discussing, things like when some players think certain abilities are overpowered."
"We constantly try and balance, but then we started discussing, 'Okay, well what if we gave the power to the player?' What if we said, 'Okay let the players balance a certain ability.' And then we thought, 'That’s cool, but what if we let the player do a lot more?' And that’s where Game Lab came from - 'Let’s really give the power to the player.'"
As to how Game Lab will do this, Browne explains that players will be able to customize their experience at length.
"[There are] 200 different parameters that you can change throughout the Game Lab to be able to create your own game mode. [We’re] basically letting people be the game designer."
"And I know some people have said, 'All that sounds a bit daunting,'" he admits, "but me, I’m really excited, in fact, the whole team is really excited. We’re going to see these cool new game modes - that are created by people - that we haven’t even dreamed of, or haven’t even thought of."
However all of this power must surely come with reigns, something to keep players from abusing the various features. And how will these gametypes find their way into matchmaking? Browne gives a couple of examples, "[If] you have a mode, you [need] to test it out because we’re aware that there are quite a few things you can do to grief people."
It's actually a simple process that takes advantage of vitality. "So to begin with you can create the mode and you can invite your friends to play it. You play it, they enjoy it, they favorite it, or they save it so they can keep it. Then when they play it and they can invite their friends to play. It can effectively turn a mode that you created quite viral," he says. "By it spreading and spreading and spreading, we can see what the most popular modes are that are doing that."
But that's not where it ends. "We take the most popular modes that have been created by players and we push them out into the public playlists so everyone can play them." Because of this, no gametype that promotes trolling will ever make it into a playlist. "But we deliberately don’t allow you to just create the game mode . . . that other players might not find fun [and make it into a public playlist]."
"We want to find the ones that are the most popular ones to push to the public."
That doesn't mean you can't do what you want with Game Lab though as Browne confirms, "But if there’s a particular mode that you really like and your friends really like but no one else really likes, that doesn't matter. You guys can still play it as much as you want and you can earn XP, it’s a reduced amount of XP, but we didn't want to say, 'Oh just because it’s private, you won’t get anything.'"
We then dived into some more specifics, asking how players can manipulate the score values of each type of kill. As he explained earlier, nothing really matters because the team moderates what goes public while offering reduced values to those playing private matches.
"So that was the thing, we don’t want to ruin the progression system. We don’t want people to use Game Lab just to boost themselves, effectively. We have what is known as reduced XP, and because we introduced it to Game Lab, we have introduced it to private [matches] as well, so now you will earn XP and Abstergo Credits (AC) while playing in private – it’s just worked at a reduced rate."
Browne then continues to detail how the system calculates your rewards. "We work out the average you would normally earn, we look at the amount of time the game session is, and then your XP and your AC that you earn is based on the position that you post at the end. That’s pretty much how it works, [but] there are a few other little things. What we've deliberately done [is if you play] ten minutes on a public session and ten minutes on a private session, even if you’re first in both, you’ll always have more XP playing public. You get normal, full XP on public. But like you said, if you make a thousand point score on the kill and you apply a times four multiplier to it - so you’re getting 4000 each time - we’re not giving you 4000 XP, quicker [in private matches]. It would be fun, but people would be Prestige 99 within a week."
Abilities were a pretty hot topic among fans following the launch of Assassin's Creed III, so we asked Browne about fan reception. The infamous smoke bomb was among the first to come up. "The one that we know the community disgusts the most is the smoke bomb; it’s always been the smoke bomb. We've balanced it and of course [some] people liked how we balanced it some people didn't like how we balanced it."
The team has put a significant amount of effort into improving it though. "We’re really happy with what we've done with it, we know we have made it far more of a skill ability. Rather than just a panic button where you see a guy about to kill you and you hit it, now there’s a certain amount of skill [involved]." He admits, "I can imagine some people will prefer it the way it was but I think they will appreciate exactly what we've done with it to make it so that it’s far more level. [Now] you have to be maybe a little more preemptive in using it."
As far as new abilities go, Browne was eager to discuss two of the planned additions. "One of them you will have seen is the Time Phase where you create this bubble around you [which] slows down time [for all] players except for your team. And that’s quite cool because it allows you to use it offensively and defensively."
"Offensively you can use it to confuse people like in Manhunt and you are the hunters; you know there’s a group of people in there but you don’t know who it is. You can throw it in, you still don’t know who it is, but you will see them start reacting, but they’ll react a lot slower because it slows down time."
"Again, if you want to use it defensively, someone’s chasing you, drop it down and it’s a bit like making a mobile chase breaker. It gives you just a few seconds of extra time because it slows them down as they enter it and gives you a little more time to get away."
The other move Browne details involves a little bit of trickery, likely to cause your foes despair.
"We've got several others – another one is called Sabotage. It’s a ranged one - you hit someone with Sabotage and it does exactly what it says on the tin, as it were. If you are affected by Sabotage - and there is a cooldown on Sabotage - how long it can be on you [that is]. [When] you go to use an ability, it doesn't backfire but it stops it. It triggers but it doesn't [go off], and then half of the cooldown is [added] and you kind of have to wait for the cooldown [to reach zero again]."
It's not as broken as it may sound he clarifies, "However, you can see if you've been affected by Sabotage if you’re looking out for it. So it’s better to let the effects of Sabotage wear off than use an ability because then you don’t have the whole cooldown, but you’re going to be at a disadvantage."
"We decided that [having it backfire] was too much. We played around with it when we were working on Sabotage, trying to work out what’s fun, what’s not fun, and we thought that was too much of a griefing weapon. Whereas the way it is now, it’s got a tiny edge of grief, but you have to be pretty good at using it as well. I think it’s probably the ability that people are the most apprehensive about [so far], but I think it’s interesting because as soon as people start using it they’re going to be very happy with the way you can use it."
A game that is seeded in the deep history of our world is also creating a history for itself. When it comes to multiplayer maps, Ubisoft has placed itself among the top tier of developers. We wondered if we would once again see some remakes return in the form of DLC, but Browne stonewalls us.
"Well we’re not talking about DLC today," he quickly rebuts, "there will be a lot of post launch support, more than we've ever done on any previous multiplayer game and we’re really excited about that. At the moment we’re focusing on launch and everything but there will be more information to come soon."
"It’s an interesting question you pose about maps, we know a lot of people talk very fondly of maps from Brotherhood, AC: R, and of course AC: III as well. It’s an interesting idea; it’s something that we may consider in the future."
The biggest issue is one that people are quick to forget he adds, "One thing you have to remember [when] taking a map that was used in Brotherhood and bringing it to AC: IV [is] if you think about how many improvements and changes we've made to things like metrics and stuff. It’s not quite just a case of going, 'There’s the map, we’ll put it in.”'There are all sorts of new things we've put in, for example, none of those maps were balanced for any of the new modes. Brotherhood maps weren't balanced for Domination for example. So you’d have to do that, that said, we’ll see what happens in the future."
Seeing as that was an area we weren't likely to make any progress in, we instead turned back to Wolfpack Mode which was just an infant when it launched in Assassin's Creed III. "Wolfpack is coming back; it’s still between two and four players to play cooperatively, so we’re not increasing the number of players. You can’t edit Wolfpack in Game Lab, that’s only for competitive modes, but we really wanted to make some huge improvements this year."
The biggest difference? There are now two seperate versions: Discover and Unleashed. Browne expands on both, "Unleashed is your traditional Wolfpack mode with some updates, Discovery is the new mode where we've effectively used a very light story wrapper to encase increasingly difficult missions that basically introduce each key element of Wolfpack. It’s sort of [designed] a bit like a light story driven tutorial for Wolfpack."
"One of the things that people found tricky with Wolfpack was that it was a cool mode, but it was really hard to play with random people. And so we wanted to make the player understand how to play Wolfpack better, so we chose to do that."
"So that’s Discovery mode, Unleashed mode is your traditional Wolfpack with improvements. First couple improvements: We’ve got brand new archetypes, even harder archetypes than we had before, some of them are using the new abilities like Time Phase, which is pretty cool. Then we have three returning difficulty modes, so Standard, Difficult, and Hardcore. However, in AC: III the three modes were all set over 25 sequences, this year Standard is on 25, Difficult is on 30, and Hardcore is on 35. We’re really pushing folks; we know some people spent ages trying to complete Hardcore and then when they did they were like, 'Okay, what are we going to do now?' So we pushed it even harder."
On top of that, the team has created two new additional game types within Wolfpack. "And then there are the two brand new sequences that have been introduced. Briefly, the first sequence is Defend, and what happens with that is you have chests to protect and the archetypes will start looting from the chests. So you've got to kill them before they loot all the money from the chest."
"The second one is what we call Infection and it’s as if something has gone wrong with the Animus and you cannot kill the targets you are supposed to kill. You have to go pick up a data packet first before you are able to kill them. It’s quite cool because suddenly you are no longer the hunter, you feel a bit more like the prey. Because if they see you, they’re immune to you attacking, you can’t hurt them. But they’ll come after you, they’re super aggressive, and they’ll come and stun you, use smoke against you, stuff like that."
"It really [forces] you to work as a team because what happens is you can lay traps, you can basically say, 'I’m running around deliberately getting them to follow me because they’re after me.' And you’re telling me, 'I’m going to be at B,' which is one of the places to get, 'in like ten seconds.' So I start capturing it five seconds before and then as you arrive we can turn around and both kill them at the same time."
Browne quickly summarizes the team's focus over the last few years. "Again, as it was last year, everything about Wolfpack is focused on forcing or really encouraging the player to play cooperatively. Which is one of the reasons why when you played with randoms and they didn't work together it wasn't so fun; so we've really looked at improving that but keeping the core DNA or what made Wolfpack fun."
From there we discuss some of the various details of Assassin's Creed IV's multiplayer. Many players are confused how stuns, honorable kills, and honorable deaths work and Browne says everything will be much clearer this time around.
"We know that contested stun or contested kill was a bit confusing to the player," he confesses. "Sometimes they didn't really understand, so this time we made it super clear in the animations that you get killed but you clearly see that you punch them in the forehand. Whereas before the animation was very quick, fluid, but you often missed what had happened. Now it’s a lot clearer and feedback from E3 and PAX from the players has been like, 'That’s really cool, we get why you put that in for nooby players to make the game more accessible.'
"One of the things that the fans are always worried about when we use the word 'accessible', when we say we want to improve how easy it is to pick up and play, they’re worried that we’re going to dumb things down. That’s far from what we want to do, so this is one of those things where they’re like, 'Totally get why you did it, that’s really cool.'"
The approach meter has received a significant amount of attention since it was changed after Broterhood, but Browne says hardcore fans will be pleased to know that Game Lab will allow you to revert it back to the way it was.
"One of the other cool things we've done with Game Lab, that we've deliberately put in, is we allow you to reverse the approach meter, which is something . . . that Brotherhood used to do. So we know that there are going to be Brotherhood fans who are going to be really happy because they're going to be able to play new characters, new locations – they're going to be able to play it on next gen as well, of course. But they're going to be able to set it up very much like Brotherhood and the stuff that they like [such as] the inverted approach meter which starts at incognito first and goes down [from there]. That was one of the key things that I really wanted to put in because we knew that there are die-hard fans who still like the way that system worked, so lets let them play that way."
Browne believes the change was certainly needed, "Effectively it's fairer [in AC: III] because before you used to be able to just round a corner [and get the bonus]. That was more about just working the map and there wasn't as much skill involved, now you have to be a lot more stealthy. And it makes more sense, it's about the approach meter, so you have to build it up. But it's like you said, some people initially didn't like it and have grown to like it and some people still much prefer the Brotherhood [way]. So we said, 'Let's let them do whatever they want.'"
As our time wound down, we decide to talk about some of the challenges the team faces. Browne says that he thinks multi-generational development was probably the hardest thing to overcome.
"The biggest challenge we had this year was definitely not only doing it on current gen but to do next gen as well, and not only do next gen, but be a launch title for next gen. Which is a pretty big and really cool thing that we're doing."
"For me, personally it's awesome because it's my first ever launch title and quite [a] few of the team are really happy about it. We're really excited because we know that people are very excited about AC: IV being on next gen and being a launch title. We can't wait to see what - particularly with Game Lab – people will come up with."
As far as creating new content with each and every iteration, Browne chocks it up to the wonderful people that his studio employs. "Well we have a fantastic map team which is based in Netherlands . . . They're an amazing group of girls and guys - very, very talented. And I think they just love it. It's the same with characters as well, it doesn't matter what setting it is, we'll always come up with really kickass characters, really awesome places and locations and maps, very varied stuff. That's one of the cool things with multiplayer, we'll often use certain locations from [the campaign] and something we pride ourselves in on Assassin's Creed is that we try to be historically accurate." He's glad the system works the way it does though. "We're given a little more freedom on the multiplayer, so we can be a little more bombastic with our characters. Make them a bit more flamboyant, but you know characters that we really want to play. That you can use to show people your persona."
Probably one of the biggest controversies was the team's decision not to include ship combat in Assassin's Creed III's multiplayer. Browne tells the truth the way it is, it was and still is impossible for the team to do so.
"There's a couple of things, it took the Shanghai studio three years for AC: III just to do the [campaign's] water physics, which gives you an idea of how much it took the team to do. To then replicate that seven more times is currently a technical impossibility. We've actually looked into doing it and we can't do it at the moment."
"But we did consider it from one point of view, but lets look at the DNA of Assassin's Creed multiplayer. Is it about being the captain of a ship? No, it's not. It's about being a badass assassin, being the best assassin out there."
"But we know everyone wants to have a go at being a game designer, coming up with their own game. So we were really, really happy when we hit on the idea of Game Lab and we realized we would be able to do it this year."
"Like I said, it's something that we've wanted to do for a while but the opportunity has never presented itself until this year. Really excited to be showing it."
Game On, powered by Examiner, would like to thank Tom Browne and Ubisoft for taking the time to sit down and talk with us. If you liked our coverage, make sure to give us a like on Facebook and a follow on Twitter. We've got lots of content you wouldn't want to miss!